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It's the moment he's been training for.

After seven months of physical and mental labor, Billings Police Officer Joseph Dickerson finally earned the right to go solo in April, finishing out the rest of his training behind the wheel of a patrol car without another officer critiquing his every move.

With a month under his belt already on the afternoon shift, Dickerson is learning what it's like to be the newbie.

Seniority is everything.

As the newest officer on his shift, Dickerson is the last to pick a beat each day. More often than not, he's out patrolling beat nine, the West End by the big-box stores.

Most calls are shoplifters, fights and domestic disturbances — perfect for an officer in training.

"They are normally fairly simple calls, but they involve the basics of law enforcement work," Sgt. Kevin Iffland said. "It's pretty good for new guys to do to get a hang of it off the bat."

Dickerson's training isn't quite over yet. He still has about four more months until his probation is over, finally gaining a sense of job security. 

New officers must complete a one-year probation starting at their hire date. Dickerson was hired Sept. 6, 2010.

"When the year is up, I will really breathe that big sigh of relief and my job will be secured," Dickerson said. "At this point, if I don't work out, they could just get rid of me."

Regardless, not having someone looking over his shoulder helps alleviate some of the stress that comes with the job.

Dickerson spent 14 weeks in the Field Training Officer program where veteran officers rode with Dickerson and showed him the ropes. He spent four weeks on each of the department's three shifts.

During his last few weeks of FTO training, Dickerson was given more responsibility, building up to the final two weeks with a training officer riding along, this time not in uniform.

"The idea is whoever you talk with is not going to know the guy you are with is even an officer," Dickerson said.

It's the final evaluation for officers before they go solo.

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"The FTO is there to step in if they are doing something blatantly wrong, but the intent of it is Officer Dickerson is acting like a regular officer, but have that safety net of an officer if something comes up," Iffland said.

Now that FTO training is over, Dickerson meets with his sergeant once a month to check up on his progress. He's spending most of his time acclimating to his new beat.

His biggest challenge so far is keeping up with paperwork.

"There is just so much different stuff you do with the paperwork — it's hard for me to get down," Dickerson said.

Luckily, that's part of the job that can be learned over time. Iffland said Dickerson has veteran officers to lean on for help.

"Officers still obviously ask questions whether its other officers or a supervisor, even stuff that comes up after working 20 years, I have questions," Iffland said. "That's the nature of the job, and that's why you can certainly ask a senior officer or supervisor — even when you are well out of the program."

The last few months of training also provide Dickerson the chance to figure out if law enforcement is his calling.

Iffland said Dickerson has the skills he needs to succeed. It's a matter if he has the desire and the drive.

"Normally, the FTO phase is a time that we will weed out or determine if officers are going to be a good fit for this profession or not," Iffland said. "We have had people in the past before their probation year was up, even after FTO, that tried remedial training and things like that, but weren't getting it and ended up being dismissed."

Being a reserve officer in the past, Dickerson is confident he's found a profession in which he can excel.

"I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into," Dickerson said. "I knew what law enforcement was. There really hasn't been any big surprises."

Dickerson's new-officer training will be complete in September, but he will never really stop learning. Officers go through mandatory and voluntary training throughout the year. Iffland said there are usually two or three training opportunities each month. 

The voluntary training is up to a supervisor's discretion.

"Whether someone gets to go or not is based on staffing and interest," Iffland said.

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